6 young Singaporeans receive nation's highest youth accolade for community contributions

(From left) Singer-songwriter Inch Chua, Lien Foundation co-lead of early childhood development Jean Loo, state counsel Amanda Chong, associate consultant orthopaedic surgeon Hamid Rahmatullah, para-athlete Jason Chee, and Pope Jai founder Daniel Teh. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

SINGAPORE - Surrounded by bad company growing up, Mr Daniel Teh was an angry young man with repeated brushes with the law for drug offences and getting into gang fights.

He was placed in the prison's reformative training centre five times - the final time was when he, in a misguided attempt to take revenge for his incarceration, decided to vandalise the centre with a pail of red paint.

Today, however, Mr Teh is a far cry from the delinquent he used to be, receiving the Singapore Youth Award 2018 at the Istana from Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean on Sunday (Oct 21).

The award, which was first given out in 1976, is the nation's highest accolade for young people who have not only excelled in their fields of pursuit but also demonstrated a strong passion to make a difference in the community.

Now 29, Mr Teh runs Thai restaurant chain Pope Jai, a social enterprise whose workforce consists mainly of youth-at-risk and people with special needs, physical disabilities and mental health issues.

The award cited his commitment and perseverance in serving underprivileged groups.

Recounting his repeated stints at the reformative training centre, Mr Teh said he came to know troubled young people with special needs who had made a wrong turn in life when he was serving his time.

"I had full control of my mind and all my limbs were intact, so what was wrong with me back then? It was there, when I was in the centre with other youths-at-risk for my fifth time, that I realised all I lacked was a heart," he told The Straits Times.

The other five winners of the prestigious award are: State counsel Amanda Chong, 28; SingHealth associate consultant orthopaedic surgeon Hamid Rahmatullah, 32; singer-songwriter Inch Chua, 29; para-athlete Jason Chee, 34; and Lien Foundation co-lead of early childhood development Jean Loo, 33.

The 2018 winners embody the values of resilience, courage, service, leadership and inspiration, said award chairman Sudha Nair.

"These six extraordinary young Singaporeans have purposefully charted their own path in pursuing their passion while being committed to contributing selflessly back to society," said Dr Nair.

Ms Chong, for example, is a lawyer at the Attorney-General's Chambers with a personal mission to bridge social inequality gaps.

She co-founded ReadAble in 2014, a weekly English literacy programme for underprivileged children and migrant women, and speaks out for social justice and gender equality at forums and events.

Citing her own privileged education as a President's Scholar, Ms Chong said it was critical for those with the means to pay it back to those without.

She was struck by how her father, who grew up in a one-room Housing Board flat, told her about people who were kind to him when he was poor.

Her career as a public prosecutor also allowed her to peer into the lives of those whose less-privileged upbringing and environment led them down a dark path in crime, said Ms Chong.

Ms Chua, too, draws from her own experience as a musician to mentor aspiring young people, founding local music agency Invasion Singapore in 2011.

She is also part of the Community Action for the Rehabilitation of Ex-Offenders network, participating in environmental causes and helping former offenders get back on their feet through songwriting.

"I understand what it means to be a youth with anxieties, feeling the uncertainties of having dreams that they want to pursue but bogged down by feeling that they can't," said Ms Chua.

"What youths need is a listening ear."

Correction note: The article has been edited for clarity.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.